[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Himmelbarb) 'The Roads to Modernity': Freedom Philosophers

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'The Roads to Modernity': Freedom Philosophers
New York Times Book Review, 4.10.24

The British, French, and American Enlightenments.
By Gertrude Himmelfarb.
284 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.

IN 1995, William Kristol published a manifesto-like essay
called ''The Politics of Liberty, the Sociology of Virtue''
-- reprinted, the following year, as the final chapter of
''The Essential Neoconservative Reader.'' It was a heady
time for the American right. There was the defeat of the
Soviet Union, of course, and the containment (until further
notice) of Saddam Hussein -- not to mention the '94 midterm
elections, a k a the Gingrich revolution. Drawing up his
ideological balance sheet, Kristol resisted the
distractions of triumph. For the moment of victory seemed
to present neoconservatives with an especially urgent and
demanding task.

It was not enough to foster the politics of liberty by
turning as many functions as possible over to the free
market's wise discipline. You also had to get people to
behave themselves -- to maintain two-parent households, to
defer to authority and to police their own unruly impulses.
And you needed them to feel appropriate levels of shame and
disgust when they did not. How was social order to be
restored in a culture that was suffering the depredations
of postwar liberalism? Especially when so many people
claimed not to be suffering at all, but having a good time?

To answer questions like these, neoconservative
intellectuals required a ''sociology of virtue.'' Demanding
it was one thing; producing it, another. Geopolitics
remains the field over which the neocons send their fastest
and heaviest think tanks rolling. But with ''The Roads to
Modernity,'' by Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, as it happens, is
Kristol's mother), we now have a historical and
philosophical prologue to the sociology of virtue.

In recent years, Himmelfarb has moved from studying the
Victorian mind in her role as intellectual historian to
championing the Victorian moral sensibility as a partisan
in the culture wars. Here she shifts the focus of both her
research and her polemic back a century, to the
Enlightenment -- an era she wants to annex (with certain
caveats) for cultural conservatism. The very idea once
would have been unthinkable. It was the left that
proclaimed itself the legitimate heir of the 18th century's
faith in progress. Those days are long gone. The
philosophes spoke of Man and of subjecting the world to
Reason, abstractions under assault by a host of
neo-Marxist, post-structuralist and anticolonialist
critics, who suspect that the Enlightenment's rhetoric of
emancipation conceals a lust for domination.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Himmelfarb spends little time
arguing with the academic left -- and none with the strain
of conservative thought best exemplified by Russell Kirk,
for which the Enlightenment was, almost literally, the
devil's own doing. Instead, she plunges directly into the
18th century, quickly and neatly distinguishing between two
opposed sets of thinkers -- the British (who are the good
guys) and the French (who are, well, French).

The scheme makes for exciting intellectual pugilism. The
thinkers of the Parisian Enlightenment (she focuses on
Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach and a few lesser
figures) are rationalists, hostile to religion and
adherents of a universalism that Himmelfarb finds
disingenuous. For all their talk of progress and
brotherhood, they remained elitists. She quotes Diderot:
''The general mass of men are not so made that they can
either promote or understand this forward march of the
human spirit.'' Since the rational powers of the
downtrodden have been stultified, not least by religious
superstition, it's best that the power to make decisions
for the good of all rest in the hands of an enlightened
sovereign (or, failing that, in a state run by an
aristocracy of the really smart). Here were the makings,
she writes, of liberal paternalism and the welfare state.

The thinkers of the British Enlightenment and their
American cousins, Himmelfarb says, present a
countertradition that has been neglected, indeed almost
written out of history. At first glance, this claim is
puzzling. Voltaire's ''Lettres Philosophiques'' (one of the
really avant-garde books of the 1730's) is devoted to
describing how advanced a society England is, compared to
poor backward France. True, the notion of a British Age of
Reason never really caught on in the history books. But how
significant is that omission measured against the actual
influence of Locke, Newton and Hume on Enlightenment

Himmelfarb's claim that the British Enlightenment has gone
unrecognized seems driven by something other than
historiographic concerns. And so it is. She finds in some
English and Scottish thinkers of the 18th century (Adam
Smith, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, for
example) something like the first effort to create a
sociology of virtue. The French savants exalted a bloodless
notion of Reason to bloody effect. The British philosophers
emphasized the moral sentiments, the spontaneous capacity
to recognize another person's suffering and to feel it as
one's own.

This power need not be delegated to the state. Himmelfarb
mounts a vigorous argument that the British philosophy was
''reformist rather than subversive, respectful of the past
and present even while looking forward to a more
egalitarian future.'' It was also egalitarian in a
practical and spontaneous (rather than ruthlessly Jacobin)
sense -- for the moral sense was common to everyone, ''not
merely the educated and well-born.'' Nor was this
Enlightenment necessarily at war with religion, as such.
Himmelfarb quotes the jibes of Edward Gibbon (no orthodox
religious believer by any stretch) against those French
thinkers who ''preached the tenets of atheism with the
bigotry of dogmatists.''

Her list of British Enlightenment figures extends to John
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who preached among the
poor not only to stiffen the common people's spines against
the temptations of gin, but also to educate them in
science, literature and philosophy. As a result of this
early instance of a faith-based initiative, England ''was
able to survive the economic revolution of the 18th century
without succumbing to a political revolution.''

When Himmelfarb's attention turns to colonial America and
the early United States the results are less persuasive,
and indeed reveal far more than she may intend about the
limits of moral sentiment she extols. ''For economic if for
no other reasons,'' she writes, ''the displacement of the
Indians was the precondition for the very existence of the
settlers.'' As for slavery, Himmelfarb acknowledges it as
an evil, but is curiously silent about its cumulative
effect, over 400 years, on the nation's stock of moral

I was reminded of something the ''elitist'' Diderot wrote,
in a moment of bitter hatred for the slave trade: the
Africans ''are tyrannized, mutilated, burnt and put to
death, and yet we listen to these accounts coolly and
without emotion. The torments of a people to whom we owe
our luxuries are never able to reach our hearts.'' A more
robust sociology of virtue might begin with the realization
that the power of moral sentiment so often fails us. Yet
when it does, our moral obligations remain. Meeting them
is, arguably, one function of the state. But in the eyes of
the neocons, I suppose, such thoughts smack of John Rawls
-- or even, worse, Le Monde.

Scott McLemee is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher


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